Entering his senior year with the Gators post player Kevarrius Hayes has seen a bit of ups and downs throughout his career. After playing reliable bench minutes as a freshman, his sophomore year saw him stepping up to a starting role after the season (ultimately career) ending injury to John Egbunu and put up the best basketball of his life for the remaining games, helping the Gators to an Elite Eight.
Then, came his junior year.
Faced with the expectation of a major leap from what people saw at the end of his sophomore year, his mediocrity on the offensive end saw critics circle around him like sharks. Struggles from the free throw line didn’t help, and Egbunu’s return not coming left the slender-framed Hayes playing the center position exclusively as opposed to playing the power forward and center positions as he had done to that point in his college career. This meant him giving up size to bigger opponents regularly and forced him to punch outside his weight class on a nightly basis.
Despite some negative press about his game, Hayes continues to be one of the hardest working Gators on the team and battled every minute on the court. As he enters his senior year I thought I’d do a bit of a breakdown of his game last season and see what we can expect from him during his final go around.
4.8 Points Per Game
5.0 Rebounds Per Game
0.4 Assists Per Game
2.0 Blocks Per Game
1.0 Steal Per Game
1.0 Turnover Per Game
56.9% Field Goal Percentage
50% Free Throw Percentage
Protecting The Rim
I’m just going to go out there and say it.
I think Kevarrius Hayes is a much more valuable player than he got credit for last year.
While his offensive game drew most of the criticism, it also somehow allowed his defensive talents to get overlooked. Let’s start with his shot blocking ability, his most valuable skill. Averaging 2 blocks a game is a great feat, and his 9.3% block rate (the percentage of opponent’s shots he blocked while on the court) is good for 36th in the country. When you look at the ability to block shots, a lot of the time you’re thinking about pure size and reach. While Hayes has really good length with his 6’9” frame and long arms, it’s his feet that really allow him to block shots. He’s very quick for a center and with solid defensive IQ he’s able to read when there’s dribble penetration and quickly shuffle over to swat away an attempt. Though he’s really good at blocking shots from the weak side when he rushes over to help, his raw blocked shot numbers are a bit misleading when it comes to his rim protection ability. Teams are shooting 67.6% around the rim when defended by Hayes, and that is not a good number at all. Hayes’ slight frame doesn’t help him here as his lack of girth allows stronger players to muscle through him as the attack the rim before finishing. Hayes was put into a lot of tough positions defending at the rim last season due to some regular lapses on the perimeter from Jalen Hudson and Egor Koulechov and that could have lead to some of Hayes’ tough numbers defending at the rim and the larger, more athletic perimeter group they have this season could help him out here.
The ability for a big man to switch out onto a guard and defend on the perimeter is paramount in modern basketball and it’s particularly important in Coach White’s switch-happy defensive schemes. This is another area where Hayes is particularly valuable. Though he doesn’t have the prototypical size of a center and that hurts him on the inside at times, it also helps the fleet-footed Hayes to guard competently on the outside. Florida used Hayes to switch onto guards a ton and worked really well as Hayes limited his opponents to 42.4% from the field when he switched out onto a guard, not an incredible number, but one that’s quite manageable when you consider that it should technically be a big mismatch for Hayes. Switching Hayes is something that is definitely within his skillset, but I think the team should consider not switching him onto the ball as often. We’ve seen, as previously discussed, that he’s incredible as a help side shot blocker and he’s also really talented at getting into passing lanes as evidenced by his 1.0 steal per game and 2.4 steal rate (346th in the country) so having him in a helping defensive position could be preferable to him being the primary defender. However Coach White decides to use him defensively, he’ll be an asset.
With Egor Koulechov leaving the Gators have to figure out how they’re going to rebound the basketball this upcoming season and Hayes will need to factor into that cause. The Gators were not a strong team on the glass last year and with Koulechov’s team leading 6.4 rebounds graduating out they’ll need to find some other answers. Hayes was not a great rebounder last season on the defensive end as his defensive rebounding rate of 13.2% was lower than Egor Koulechov (17.8%), Jalen Hudson (15.1%), Chris Chiozza (13.6%), and Gorjok Gak (16.4%) while he tied with Keith Stone. Strangely enough, though he wasn’t a great defensive rebounder he was the 148th best offensive rebounder in the country with an offensive rebounding rate of 10.8%. A big frame and strong base is usually associated with better defensive rebounders, due to the ability to box out, while length is traditionally more associated with offensive rebounding (the ability to back-tap misses to a guard) so that is consistent with Hayes’ numbers, though you wonder if his low defensive rebounding stats are a bit of an anomaly. It could be that the high-pressure switching schemes have him switched out to a guard and out on the perimeter when a shot goes up, or it could be that he was purely focused on boxing out his man to allow the rebound to fall to someone like Chris Chiozza. Personally, I think it’s the latter, and that’s part of the reason Chiozza rebounded so we’ll at 6’0” tall and why Hudson had some big rebounding games. Next time you want to criticize Hayes for his rebounding, keep an eye out for when he is purely trying to take the other team’s best rebounder off the glass and allowing his teammates to pursue the ball.
Here is the biggest Hayes can grow going into his final year. He says he has worked on improving a midrange jump shot, and a tool like that could help him improve on his 4.8 points per game. Up to this point in his career his offensive production has been fairly limited to most lop catching and rim running in transition for easy points, but he definitely plays within himself as his 56.9% field goal percentage shows he doesn’t take a lot of shots outside of his comfort zone, and he’s never attempted a three-pointer in his career. He actually was really good finishing out of the pick and roll when he got the opportunity (75%) but the pick and roll wasn’t a big part of Florida’s offense and truthfully, when they ran it Hayes wasn’t really the primary option as he exploded to the hoop. An underrated part of Hayes’ game was that he actually was efficient when he posted up, scoring on 50% of his attempts on the block, and I appreciated that he did recognize when he had a smaller opponent on him down low and tried to punish them with a baby hook on the inside. The question for Hayes is how can he best serve the team with his offense. The team doesn’t need him to be a double figures scorer or take a lot of possessions on the block, but what they do need him to be is a threat to catch the ball near the hoop and finish. Jalen Hudson, Keith Stone, Andrew Nembhard, and KeVaughn Allen are going to attract a lot of defensive attention and Nembhard’s passing ability is going to find Hayes near the hoop. They need Hayes to have soft hands to catch passes and a strong upper body to finish through contact. A bit surprisingly to me, he actually was 63.5% in the paint this past season, though the eye test would point to games like the loss to Alabama where he caught the ball inside but was too hesitant to put the ball up, instead just passing it out. However, if he can finish inside at the same rate but put up more shots there instead of passing out, he’ll be a good roll player on a starting lineup that should have plenty of other scoring options.
This has been an issue for Hayes throughout his career and his 50% stroke from the free throw line could have been one of the issues keeping him from attacking the rim confidently as fear of getting fouled and missing the free points could have crept into his mind. To be honest, I’m really not sure what Hayes’ free throw woes are a result of. His stroke doesn’t look too bad, and his pre-shot routine and delivery is pretty repeatable, usually signs of a player that’s at least a decent free throw shooter. Like I mentioned earlier he does say he’s been working on a midrange shot and that should help him with free throws as well, though with the mental aspect of free throw shooting I think we’ll just have to wait until games start to see where he’s really at.
Kevarrius Hayes will never be a big stats guy and he’s not going to be the focal point of the offense or anything like that. He is a rugged player, a leader, and one that will do whatever it takes to help the Gators win even when he isn’t the player lighting up the stats sheet. You know he’s going to help anchor the defense and as long as he gets mildly better offensively to the point where teams can’t leave him, he’ll be a valuable player. Setting good screens, communicating defensively, and doing all the little things around the floor, expect Hayes to be a key cog in the Gator machine this year.